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Greg Goebel (Loveland, CO USA)
4.0 out of 5 stars
A Handy Reference, July 18 2004
* I've been poking around in quantum physics lately, and have run
across the popular books on the subject by John Gribbin. I've had
mixed feelings about his work: he seems very knowledgeable and writes
well from a prose standpoint, but I keep getting the feeling that he
doesn't have a strong handle on connecting to the reader. Granted,
there's no topic harder to communicate than quantum physics, but I've
been reading a number of different authors on the topic, and
Gribbin doesn't always seem to be able to get his ideas across as
clearly as some of the others.
However, John Gribbin's Q IS FOR QUANTUM (written in collaboration
with his wife Mary) does not really suffer much for this. it's an
encyclopedia of quantum physics, and since by design it's not trying
to provide a unified narrative, the reader never runs into a
roadblock. There are certainly parts of this book that are hard to
understand, possibly because they could have been better written --
for example, I know enough about quantum-mechanical tunneling to be
suspicious of the clarity of the entry on that subject -- but Q IS FOR
QUANTUM provides so much sparkling and useful information that it's
hard to complain.
One of the things about learning quantum physics is that it requires
understanding a large unfamiliar context of information, and sometimes
it really helps in tracing through a specific discussion to be able to
to have a reference on some of the terminology and concepts used.
Besides, the book is interesting in itself. I did a quick scan
through it to see what it contained, and it not only talks about
quantum physics, many of its entries refer to classical physics, at
least to the extent that quantum physics is based on notions of
classical physics. There are a large number of biographical entries,
some of which are good fun -- for example, the physicist who, when
asked if he could explain his work to the general public, answered
If you're trying to navigate your way through quantum physics, Q IS FOR
QUANTUM is not likely to show you the way in itself. However, it makes a
very handy backup document while reading other books on the subject, and I
can recommend it.
0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars
Harlequins For Males, July 18 2004
* Every time I go strolling through the paperback section of the local
department store -- I do this mostly out of habit, since I lost
interest in novels a long time ago -- I notice one section is devoted
to what, for want of a better term, I would call "male Harlequins".
Women apparently like to read slushy romances; men, on the other hand,
like to read violent action novels.
These violent action books have titles like MIA HUNTER or SAIGON
COMMANDOS or whatever. There's a whole rack of 'em, and they're
usually numbered as elements of a series. Mind you, I'm not
criticizing these books. People write them and make a living. People
buy them and kill some time. Everyone's happy. Some may claim that
such books have a negative effect on the character of those who read
them, but as a concern that doesn't quite cross the edges of my
There are movies that seem to fall in this category as well, and there
I would solidly place RED SCORPION. In this film, Scandinavian hunk
Dolf Lundgren plays a Soviet SPETSNATZ commando, sent to some mythical
African nation (Mombassa or Mikubu or ... whatever, something like
that) to help suppress a rebellion. He eventually realizes that he's
fighting on the wrong side and helps the rebels.
"And?" you ask. "And what?" I reply. That's really all there is to
it. It's sort of like a WWII-vintage propaganda flic, with the
sadistic and brutal Russians and Cubans oppressing the noble African
freedom fighters. It's all pretty much by-the-numbers: violence,
combat, torture, fistfights; lots and lots of fiery explosions.
I didn't mind. I'd been feeling frustrated, and I wanted to park my
brains for a while before I blew a fuse and bit the mailman. I knew
what I was getting into and got exactly what I expected. RED SCORPION
has zero pretensions of being anything but what it is, and makes no
false claims in its advertising. Anybody who watches this movie
with high expectations will be disappointed, but I would have to say
that would be like picking up a paperback like DELTA FORCE RAIDERS and
expecting to read WAR AND PEACE. Still, it would be nice to see a
movie that I don't forget the instant it's over. [Minor update of
review from 1989.]
4.0 out of 5 stars
Charming!, July 11 2004
* Although video versions of Jonathan Swift's classic satire GULLIVER'S
TRAVELS have been done before, most prominently the prewar Fleischer animated
version, NBC felt the need to do a TV miniseries on the story. The result
turned out to be surprisingly interesting.
The producers did try, with little success, to impose a "personal interest"
story on top of Swift's non-stop satire, with Dr. Lemuel Gulliver (Ted
Danson) held in a lunatic asylum in reaction to the wild stories he told of
his journey, with his wife (Mary Steenbergen) trying to rescue him. That is
all neither here nor there, because it really doesn't either add much or get
in the way of the real story. Similarly, the fact that Danson's Lemuel
Gulliver isn't all that inspired isn't a problem, because even in Swift's
original he was little more than a narrator anyway.
All that said, however, this video production actually remains more true to
Swift's vision than other productions, in particular including (if in a brief
fashion) Gulliver's later voyages, such as to the floating city of Laputa.
The story is presented much as Jonathan Swift intended it -- as a scathing
and somewhat sanctimonious condemnation of human venality -- but it is still
Much of this was due to excellent special effects. For example, Dr. Gulliver
reaches around the dome of a building in miniature Lilliput, and pigeons the
size of insects flutter away from his fingertips. Hwowever, short
appearances by well-known faces such as Omar Sharif and Geraldine Chaplin
(appearing lovely in Indian-style sari as the wife of the Rajah of Laputa,
complaining about the dullness of the learned and enjoying Gulliver's company
as an "ordinary unintelligent male") and the wit of Swift's story (the
intellectuals of Laputa are batted by their servants to bring their attention
back to reality when needed) also help carry it very well.
I keep wondering if anyone ever decided to come up with a new printing of
GULLIVER'S TRAVELS that uses the picture-pretty imagery from the NBC
production as illustrations. GULLIVER'S TRAVELS is a great book but a old
one, and such marvelous illustrations would help make it more accessible to a
modern audience. [Update of review from 1996.]
3.0 out of 5 stars
Quirky Fun, July 4 2004
* In Takashi Miike's THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (THOTK), we meet
the Katakuri clan: grandpa Jinpei, the old crusty family patriarch,
and his little Benji-style mutt Pochi; Masao (Kenji Sawada), an
ex-shoe salesman, and his wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), who met at
work, fell madly in love with each other and stayed that way; their
divorcee daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida), a pretty and sweet girl who
unfortunately is unbelievably gullible, making her a complete pushover
for every lying jerk that comes around; their son Masayuki (Shinji
Takeda), who has a bit of an attitude problem and a history of
problems with the law concerning lifting wallets and the like; and
Shizuo's little daughter, who is something of an observer to the
Masao, having been laid off from work, invests in a country house to
rent rooms to vacationers, bringing together his semi-dysfunctional
family in an earnest attempt to get things back on track.
Unfortunately, they can't seem to get any guests, driving everyone to
distraction; and so when a gloomy stranger shows up and asks for a
room, everyone is ecstactic. They are distressed, then, when he
commits suicide during the night. Instead of reporting the incident
to the police, Masao decides that it would be healthier for business
if they simply buried the poor fellow in the woods, and manages to get
everyone to agree. However, this turns out to be only the beginning
of a streak of really terrible luck, which just seems to go from bad
to worse ...
As this description suggests, THOTK is a quirky film, made all the
more quirky by the fact that it is a musical. As if to emphasize its
quirkiness, it often lapses into "claymation" style animation, though
this sometimes seem to be less an attempt at quirkiness than a dodge
to avoid expensive special-effects shots (and a way of doing violent
and gory scenes without ruining the goofy effect of the whole).
It is hard to make recommendations about quirky movies. Many people
hate such things, and such folk will not like THOTK at all. Some
people love such things, and they will love THOTK. Me, quirky movies
are just another genre of movie, like sci-fi flics or horror flics or
war flics, and I tend to like them or not on their own merits --
they're far from anything new, folks. I can definitely say THOTK is
well-produced, well-acted, and fun, though whether it is more original
than some of the musical productions MAD magazine wrote up in my youth
many decades ago is arguable.
I'm not sure I'd call it memorable, and I did find it overlong (it
could have been edited down to better effect), but it certainly does
have its moments. I liked the "MTV music video" style number the
family put on when they find the suicide's body, and in particular the
"nightclub duet" number Masao and Tenuo put of when they express their
love for each other. They looked really good -- though of course,
almost anyone looks good in evening clothes in soft lighting with
laser lights and disco balls. Overall, I hate to praise THOTK too
much or too little, so I'll just have to provide a description and let
the readers take their own chances on it.
4.0 out of 5 stars
Not A Classic But Very Pleasant, July 4 2004
* I picked up ESCAFLOWNE THE MOVIE (ETM) on a gamble, knowing nothing
about it ahead of time. I was expected from what I saw of it that it
was a fairly straightforward fantasy piece, and as it turned out, that
was precisely what it was.
ETM is the story of Hitomi, a discouraged and depressed Japanese
high-school student, who seems to be drifting somewhere near the
end of her rope when she runs into a mysterious stranger, who transports
her to the world of Gaea. There she finds herself involved in a war
between a gang of fighters, including the hotheaded young warrior
Lord Van, and a fairly traditional Evil Empire, led by the brutal
Lord Folken, who has a death wish literally as big as an entire planet.
Hitomi finds that she is actually the "Wing Goddess", who is linked
spiritually to the ultra-powerful "Escaflowne" battle armor -- think
a mecha based on mystical and not mechanical principles. In a series
of adventures with Lord Van, she must use her relationship with the
Escaflowne to guide the future of Gaea.
The story premise is straightfoward fantasy-novel stuff; the whole
"disaffected adolescent who is really a messiah or wotnot in an
alternate world" comes across as a bit comical, considering the way
it panders to the egotism of the reader or viewer, often disaffected
adolescents who wished there was more to their lives. However,
although the plot of ETM is somewhat by-the-numbers, it still snaps
along nicely and the movie never drags or insults the viewer's
intelligence. The characterizations come across as a bit sketchy,
but ETM covers a lot of ground in a short time and it would be hard
to do much more under the circumstances.
All that in itself would not amount to much of a recommendation for
ETM. However, although I was expecting something very run-of-the-mill
from this movie, from the outset I had to think: "This is very
nicely done!" The production values are very conscientious, with pretty
artwork, particularly of landscapes and skyscapes, backed up by a
sparkling soundtrack; beginning with Indian raga music, progressing
through various musical styles (including a techno-disco number) and
ending with what sounds perfectly like a country-pop romantic tune
-- sung in Japanese.
I definitely found ESCAFLOWNE THE MOVIE to be time well and pleasantly
spent. It's not actually topknotch -- the character designs tend to
come across as a little wooden and stereotypical, and it's somewhat
more gory and violent than makes sense, though I didn't have much of a
problem myself with the bloodshed. I doubt that anybody who doesn't
like fantasy will much care for it, and I couldn't claim it was a
really memorable film -- but it sure is pretty! I might try picking
up the anime series, which I understand has roughly the same
characters but a completely rearranged plot.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars
I'm Uncertain, June 25 2004
* John Gribbin's SCHROEDINGER'S KITTENS & THE SEARCH FOR REALITY,
subtitled "Solving The Quantum Mysteries", is a follow-up to Gribbin's
IN SEARCH OF SCHROEDINGER'S CAT, and amounts to a discussion of
leading edge (at least as of 1995) concepts in fundamental quantum
Gribbin begins with a prologue to set up the problem, discussing the
two-slit interference experiment; the tale of Schroedinger's Cat and
it relevance to quantum indeterminacy; and then goes on to the
murky waters of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paradox,
quantum entanglement, and Bell's theorem. He follows this up with a
historical narrative to show the emergence of these experiments and
concepts out of classical physics, illustrates their bizarre aspects
and contradictions, and outlines various approaches to their solution.
It is a bit hard to know what to make of this book. The first issue
is: who is the target audience? The material in it is so difficult,
even at Gribbin's informal level of writing, that it appears to be a
casual essay for physicists, not something easily digested by the
general reader, even one such as myself with a lifelong active
interest in the sciences.
This leads to the second issue: it is clear that Gribbin is tackling
difficult issues, but it is not clear that he does a very good job of
explaining them to the reader. On reading it, I kept thinking; "This
guy writes like a physicist!" -- to which the immediate answer popped
into my head: "Well duh, he *is* a physicist!" He seems to have a
good handle on what he is writing about, but not necessarily on the
glazed-eye reactions of readers trying to follow him. The title of
the book helps enhance such suspicions: if I were reading a book with
a title that claimed it was about THE SEARCH FOR REALITY in public,
I'd probably hide it in a brown-paper cover so people wouldn't think I
was that deep in the outfield. It makes me a little uneasy to think
that Gribbin didn't realize how pretentious the title was, but then
again maybe it was foisted on him by an editor.
And that, finally, leads in turn to the third issue: the whole
subject of fundamental quantum physics is so far removed from ordinary
experience that while reading the book a question always seems to be
floating in the background: "Who but a physicist would care in the
slightest about any of this?" I already have a definition of reality
that works perfectly for me: It's what I don't want to face when I
wake up in the morning with a headache. I'm only really interested in
learning about the practical applications of quantum theory; having to
unavoidably struggle through theoretical issues just to figure out how
to simplify or ignore them do so feels like trying to take a plane
from London to Paris, and finding out the only connection is through
Honolulu. The fact that physicists have been able to conduct
experiments to *prove* some of these bizarre ideas only makes it
worse, since it makes them much harder to ignore.
In the end, I am hard-pressed to come to clear conclusions about this
book. I think a serious student of physics would find it interesting.
It is much too difficult for a casual reader to be regarded as anything
approximating light reading -- Bob save us from the casual reader who
could read through it and claim: "I understand it perfectly!". I
doubt that any physicist would make such a claim.
I did find this book valuable myself. I acquired some interesting
historical details, as well as some insights, most significantly an
understanding that the "many worlds" theory of quantum physics, which
I initially thought sounded like sheer science fiction, really isn't
any more preposterous than traditional quantum physics (or for that
matter any less). I will probably read through this book again, and I
will read other books by John Gribbin. But I will mutter nasty
things under my breath while I do it.
4.0 out of 5 stars
Stimulating Reading, June 20 2004
* Niall Ferguson's EMPIRE, subtitled "The Rise & Demise Of The British
World Order & The Lessons For Global Power", was published in 2002 as
a companion to a BBC TV series. EMPIRE traces the rise of British
global domination from the year 1600 to its abrupt end after World War
II, describing how the British rose to power, how they maintained it,
and why they ultimately gave it up.
As Ferguson writes, in the year 1600, England seemed like an also-ran
in the colonization game, totally outclassed by the Spaniards,
Portugese, and even the Dutch. Failing to obtain rich colonies of
their own, the English were still able to obtain riches by simple
piracy and by obtaining a trading toehold in India, a vastly
profitable source of spice and cloth.
A century later, with the formation of "Great Britain" by the union of
England and Scotland in 1707, and major military victories against
Spain, Britain was clearly jockeying for the top spot in global
domination. Britain got the upper hand during a global war with the
French in midcentury, with a crude thug named Robert Clive laying the
foundation of what would become British domination over India,
originally through the East India Company.
Britain also set up colonies in the New World and Australia. The
Americans would rebel, but the Australians and Canadians would remain
loyal to the crown, with the government in London learning from the
American fiasco that it was better to devolve authority and let the
colonies become self-governing. There was no such devolution of
authority in India, though British rule over the country was loose:
they were just a new ruling caste in a land always ruled by caste.
Originally the British Empire had been pure imperialism, but in the
19th century it became a vehicle for mass movements, first the fight
for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, and then a zealous
missionary movement. The missionary movement went too far in India,
however, antagonizing native troops to lead to an uprising in 1857,
and British leadership sensibly decided to reign in the missionaries
there lest they cause further trouble. India remained the "Jewel In
The Crown" of the Empire, though frictions began to arise when
attempts by London to grant the locals more authority were blocked by
the colonial white elite.
Still, the British Empire continued to grow, with Britain becoming the
big winner in a scramble for Africa late in the 19th century.
Frictions with other imperial rivals did lead to a global conflict,
World War I, but Britain and her allies won, with the British Empire
growing again. However, the war had been disastrous for Britain, and
imperialism was now proving unprofitable and its appeal was declining.
Britain remained powerful enough to defy Hitler's aggressions long
enough for reinforcements to arrive. If crushing the Axis was
Britain's "finest hour", however, it was still the hour past midnight
for the British Empire, and in the postwar period the colonies were
effective abandoned. In 1956, Britain and France invaded Egypt; the
US and the USSR told them to get out, and they did. It was the last
major British imperialist venture.
Ferguson tells this story very well and in an entertaining fashion.
He makes a number of interesting points, for example: the average
Britisher didn't get much benefit from the Empire; the end of the
Empire was less due to local insurrections than British disinterest
and the pressure from the uglier Axis empires; and that Britain could
have been said to have sacrificed her own empire to help save the
world from those uglier empires. Of course there will be readers who
will differ with these ideas, as well as Ferguson's conclusions on the
relevance of the British Empire on the modern American
empire-of-sorts; but even so this remains a highly readable and
stimulating book. Very much recommended.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars
An Amusing Appetizer, June 20 2004
* I haven't seen the Vin Diesel sci-fi / horror / adventure vehicle
PITCH BLACK, though I'd heard enough good things about it to find the
idea of an animated sequel by Peter Chung (AEON FLUX) interesting, so
I picked it up.
In THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK: DARK FURY, Diesel's Riddick and friends
are picked up by a mercenary ship, run by a malevolent matriarch with
grotesque artistic pretensions. Riddick is put through deadly tests
which he must survive to take the fight back to his captors. The
result is very violent and, if you can like Peter Chung's angular
artwork style, visually impressive and entertaining. Chung uses
drawn characters against a backdrop of computer-generated imagery,
and the result is striking, if a bit cluttered and visually confusing
However, DARK FURY is no more than amusing, and being only about
35 minutes long, it's basically just an appetizer for the CHRONICLES
OF RIDDICK live-action film. There seems to be a drift these days for
doing adult animation features in support of major movie productions,
which I'm all for -- almost anything that brings animation more into
the entertainment mainstream is all for the good -- but I wish they
would do a bit more earnest job of it. Give me an hour at least,
people, or multiple episodes.
4.0 out of 5 stars
Great Good Fun, June 11 2004
It is a bit hard to categorize Dougal Dixon's AFTER MAN. It is an
"imaginary zoology" of the Earth 40 million years from now, after
humanity dies out in a massive environmental disaster, and sits on the
fine edge between science and science fiction.
All the large predators and most of the large herbivores died out with
*homo sapiens*. More resilient creatures expanded into new
ecological niches. Rats formed the basis of the primary predator
group, resulting in forms much like wolves, bears, and saber-toothed
cats, with little resemblance to modern rats except in dentition.
Rabbits and other small plant eaters form the major herbivore group,
resulting in forms somewhat like present-day llamas.
My favorite, however, is the Vortex. The whales, not surprisingly,
went the way of humanity, and the penguin's descendants moved into the
vacuum. The Vortex is the Dixonian equivalent of a baleen whale: 12
meters (40 feet) long, with a beak modified to act as a strainer.
The illustrations are good, but the text is little dry. It doesn't
matter, it's too much fun to page through this book and marvel at
Dixon's brilliant imagination. It's a flight of fantasy, to be sure,
but one with a detailed flight plan. Very much recommended if you
have a little imagination. [Minor update of review from 1989.]
3.0 out of 5 stars
Comprehensive But Muddy Reading, June 9 2004
* Rex Hall and David Shayler's SOYUZ -- A UNIVERSAL SPACECRAFT
provides a history of the Soviet-Russian Soyuz manned space capsule.
It outlines the origin and evolution of the spacecraft, discussing
variants planned for manned lunar missions and those used in Earth
orbit missions, including both stand-alone flights and space-station
ferry flights. It also discusses the Progress unmanned freighter
derivative. Spacecraft technology is described in detail, as are all
This is an impressively comprehensive book and a very valuable
reference for a serious spaceflight enthusiast. Unfortunately, it is
flawed by the fact that the writing is uninspired and unimpressive.
The authors start at A and go to Z, filling up the space between with
details. To be sure, trying to document a sequence of dozens of
spaceflights in adequate detail and not glaze a reader's eyes over is
difficult, but SOYUZ is simply cluttered. It's about 470 pages long;
it would have been more readable if it had been about 300 pages and
lost nothing. I had to roll my eyes at the authors' focus on details
when they starting giving background information on the pilot of a
helicopter that picked up some cosmonauts.
The authors also should have provided a hierarchical structure that
would have made the material easier to follow. If I had tried to
write a book like this, I would have written a four-page survey of it
and used it as an introduction -- then written a 40-page short version
and used it as the first chapter, or broken it up and used it to
provide introductory overviews for each chapter. It would have also
been nice to have had "evolutionary charts" of Soyuz variants, and
other tools to make things clear. There are summaries in this book
but they are very terse, and the tables are basically data dumps that
are as cluttered as the text.
I will give plenty of credit where credit is due for the extensive
legwork the authors put in on this book. This book does provide a
real value, I will make good use of it, and I can recommend it. I
just have to add that it is frustrating to wade through a book where
the authors didn't seem to understand the concept of